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Who Are the Hebrews?

Who Are the Hebrews?

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The first person to be called a Hebrew was Abraham,1 and the name commonly refers to his descendants, known as the Jewish people. The word for Hebrew used in the Bible is עברי (pronounced "Ivri"), meaning "of or pertaining to עבר-ever." So what does "ever" mean?

The Midrash2 quotes three opinions as to where this name comes from:

  1. Rabbi Yehuda taught that the word "ever" means "opposite side." Abraham believed in one G‑d, and the rest of the world worshipped man-made gods. Thus, "Abraham stood on one side, and the entire world stood on the other side."
  2. Rabbi Nechemiah opined that it is a reference to Ever, great-great-grandson of Noah (usually Anglicized as "Eber"), ancestor of Abraham. Eber was one of the bearers of the monotheistic tradition which he had learned from his ancestors Shem and Noah and passed on to his grandson Abraham. Since Abraham was a descendant and disciple of his, he is called an Ivri.
  3. The rabbis held that the word is a reference to the fact that Abraham came from the other side of the river and was not a native Canaanite. "Ivri" also refers to the fact that Abraham spoke the Hebrew language—thus named because of its ancient origins, preceding the development of the other languages current at that time.3

So Hebrew means the one who is opposed, on the other side, and different from all others. Abraham was a solitary believer in a sea of idolatry.

Perhaps this is why the second person to be called a Hebrew is Joseph.4 A nice Hebrew boy ends up in Egypt, the decadent land of the Pharaohs, where people and the celestial spheres are worshipped instead of G‑d; a lone teenager with outlandish Hebrew beliefs from the far side, in the strongest society of his day. Joseph did not cave in to the pressures. He stood firm in the faith of his ancestors and ultimately rose to the top of Egyptian society, until he was second to Pharaoh himself. In fact, it was after the wife of Potiphar had tried to tempt him into sinning, and he withstood the temptations, that he is first referred to as an Ivri—for then he showed that he was a faithful bearer of the contrary tradition of Adam, Noah, Shem, Eber, and Abraham.

So who are the Hebrews today?

The Jewish people, who after over 3,000 years still cling to their peculiar beliefs and are not swayed by the passing fancies of pop culture, are the same contrary people as their ancestors—the Hebrews of old.

Footnotes
2.
Bereishit Rabbah 42:8,
3.
While the other languages developed after the dispersion which followed the building of the Tower of Babel, Hebrew preceded them all. Perhaps it is etymologically related to the word עבר-past, since it is a language from the past.
Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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Discussion (49)
June 5, 2016
What about the 10 Tribes of Israel?? They never united with Judah..
Anonymous
Australia
April 27, 2016
this is good information
lala gomez
marysville
February 26, 2016
If Abraham came from Shem who was black, Egypt is in Africa and Joseph was considered Pharaoh's son. Why do we teach that Jews today are white when the truth is they are Hebrew's the blacks. When will you all se that truth, see Rev. 2/9 & 3/9. You have to look like someone to pass as them.
Anonymous
World
February 13, 2016
When were Hebrews named
Abraham, was not a Hebrew. He was first called a Hebrew by the people in canaan, because he came from across the river, and settled in Hebron. Abraham was a Semite, which is a descendant of Shem. Abraham, and those with him, and after him, were called Hebrews. Jacob, (Isaac's son) name was changed by God to Israel, and Jacob's children were called, the children of Israel. One of those children was named Juda. Judas'children were called Jews. Jews are descendants of the tribe of Juda. People are also called Jews, who practice the religion of Judaism.
Donald
January 31, 2016
How can Abraham be the first Hebrew and it says that he spoke the hebrew language? Did he invent his own language? Joseph the second to be called hebrew is said to have outlandish hebrew beliefs where did the beliefs come from? The implication is that there were hebrews prior to
Anonymous
January 21, 2016
Why not just call yourselves Hebrew rather than Jews since in the Hebrew language their is no letter "J" anyway. i assume that the hebrew People of old never referred to themselves as Yews.
Fred
U.S.
October 6, 2015
Jewish
what do they mean by 'Hebrews to man'
Anonymous
jamaica
September 20, 2015
When did the name Hebrew become Jewish?
Lezlie
San Diego
August 3, 2015
Human Believes
No society can be without religious beliefs. And just as every individual believes that he/she is better than the other, every society believes so.
Kiplimo Kemboi
Eldoret-Kenya
July 12, 2015
Hebrew
Thank you for this interesting story, much more meaningful than going through my flash cards or app, the word will stick with me. I was only learning the word Ivri last week.

I was also intrigued and wondered why G-d seems to require his people to cross a body of water and go over "to the other side" in order to follow His command.
Anonymous